Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14-15
You’ve been a slave your whole life. Your parents were slaves, your grandparents were slaves, and the 20 generations before them . . . slaves.
You wake up before the sun, head to the fields, and work. The heat is unbearable—113 °F. The callouses on your hands are thicker than what you’ll eat for dinner. And you don’t get a lunch break. Your back throbs from the incessant labor and the brutal whipping you received last week. After the sun goes down, you eat a forkful of smelly fish, two slices of cucumber, and an uncooked onion scrap. You head to a shack, lay on the dirt, find some twigs and loose hay as a makeshift, itchy pillow, and try to get some sleep.
Every single day, this is your life.
One day, two old guys show up. They head to the chief of town’s office and demand your release. They say the slavery must end. After some intense persuasion, the chief agrees to let you and the others go.
You’re free. So you follow the old guys on their way to a land that sounds unbelievable—soft grass, rolling hills, cold water. They say this land will be your new home. They say you won’t ever be a slave again.
But the journey is a long way. Days become weeks, weeks become months, months become years. And you’re still not there. Amazingly, you have water to drink and food to eat. You can’t wrap your mind around how these old guys always seem to have enough. But instead of being grateful, you grumble.
“I miss slavery!” you shout.
The others join.
“Yeah! This food sucks. Remember how we used to eat fish?”
“We’re gonna die out here! That land you promised doesn’t exist!”
“I wish I was already dead. This is miserable.”
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
Not Just the Israelites
This is what’s going on in Numbers 21. God has delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and they’re grumbling about it. Absurd, right?
Well, not exactly. I think we can see ourselves in these Israelites more than we may like to admit. We’re glad God has freed us from our old selves, lives, and habits, but we wish the journey home was a little easier. We wish we were there already. Or that the journey came with a first-class plane ticket. But it doesn’t. And here we are, missing the slavery we used to live in.
Do you ever miss slavery?
“Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” — Numbers 21:6
Wait . . . really? That’s nuts. God sends serpents to kill them? And what the heck does “fiery” mean? Are they dragons or what?
The Bronze Serpent
At this point, the Israelites realize they’ve screwed up. They come to Moses, beg for forgiveness, and ask him to pray to God on their behalf. Moses prays, and here’s God’s response:
“Make a serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” — Numbers 21:8
What an amazing moment. These people are snake-bitten. Destined for death. They’re frantic for any way to relieve the venom. And God says, “See and you will live.”
Not, “Be a better person and you will live.”
Or, “Watch your mouth, quit grumbling, and you will live.”
Or, “Pray more, read more Scripture, and you will live.”
So Moses makes a serpent out of bronze, sets it on a pole, and lifts it up. All who look upon the serpent live.
See Him Lifted
This Old Testament story proclaims the heart of Christianity. You see, you and me, we’re snake-bitten. We’re flawed, broken, and selfish. Sin is a venom that won’t stop spreading. Sooner than later, it will kill us.
We think, “If I’ll be a better person God will let me live.”
Or, “If I stop grumbling God will let me live.”
Or, “If I do good Christian things God will let me live.”
But those things won’t work. We need something more—something deeper than the venom in our blood. In the New Testament, Jesus provides our remedy.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
Here’s what He means:
“Quit looking toward yourself, trying to fix up your own life. Look here! Look to me! See the nails that pierce my hands. See the blood pouring down my face. See me writhe as they crack the whip, squint as they spit in my face, grieve as they mock me. You were bitten by snakes, so I’ve become one for you. See me lifted up on this cross, and the venom will stop. I died so that you can live.”
And Lift Him Up
And so, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, we must lift up Jesus with our lives. Cause your life to speak boldly of Jesus. Live in such a way that demands a Gospel explanation—that leaves people around you utterly puzzled. Give of your time, money, and energy well beyond what’s comfortable or what makes sense. Care for the outsiders. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked.
Lift Him up. Others will see and live.
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written,
“Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”
— Galatians 3:13